Huashan-branch Complete Perfection household Daoists performing the Receiving Water ritual, Qingshui county;
Buddhist temple monk playing shawm, Zhangye county;
Household Daoist band led by Wang Maoxue, Zhangye county.
Source: Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Gansu juan (1997)
The temple fair here wasn’t quite what I had in mind—but it’s all part of the picture:
Uploaded from tudou.com in 2015 (further clips on Chinese sites here and here), it shows the ritual of Receiving the Palanquin to consecrate a bronze statue of Mao Zedong at the Wulanshan temple fair in Jingyuan county northeast of Lanzhou.
We might see this as the continuation of a long tradition: the deification of historical personages has an ancient imperial history, and emperors too were revered as gods. Much has been written on the secular cult of Chairman Mao—not just his veneration while he was alive but more recent leftist campaigns inspired by him, which have attracted consternation (not least within China). Also intriguing are local temples built for his religious worship. Indeed, media attention focuses on such clickbait at the expense of more traditional religious life.
Still, popular temple worship doesn’t always involve liturgy, and for such temples I haven’t heard much about formal ritual activity. So what intrigues me with this Gansu temple fair—small in scale, apparently organized by the local community without outside official involvement—is its creative use of religious observances performed by Daoist ritual specialists, with full paraphernalia, a shawm band leading the way.
Once the god statue is installed inside the temple, the Daoists open proceedings with choruses of Chairman Mao comes to our village (far more earthy than the saccharine versions online, like this) and The East is red.
Left: idyllic image from YouTube Chairman Mao comes to our village—no irony apparently intended. Right: less idyllic image of the Great Leap Backward.
After helpers clothe the statue (to a schmaltzy added soundtrack), the chief liturgist, wielding sword and placard, animates it with incense, fire, and mirror (to a hardly less dodgy accompaniment of dizi flute solo).
* * *
I’ve explored post-traumatic amnesia in China and Europe (e.g. here and here). In this case, apart from the misplaced nostalgia for a regime that kept people in poverty (indeed, Gansu was one of the provinces worst affected by the famine), there’s the further irony of performing rituals for a leader who did his utmost to destroy religion. Nationally it’s not an isolated case, though I don’t know how common it is in this region.  And we might compare the Soviet nostalgia for Stalinism.
Already, an update would be interesting. Uncle Xi first criticized the personality cult of Mao worship, and then mounted one for himself—even while aligning himself with the Shaanbei mystique (a campaign ridiculed here). And as his power was further consolidated, “patriotic” rituals—obligatory demonstrations of the Party’s power over religion—have recently been incorporated into stage-managed events at some larger official sites of worship. Meanwhile, the secular cult of Mao doesn’t appear to be at odds with the goals of the current leadership; and manifestations of religious piety towards Mao at the grass roots (as at this Gansu temple) are a minor phenomenon, even if they may alarm the secular atheist leftists. Temples to Uncle Xi are a vision for the future…
So I still hope that scholars will focus on serious study of the enduring (albeit ever-changing!) life of traditional Daoist ritual in Gansu and elsewhere…
Daoists of the Daode guan temple, Zhangye county;
Cao Jixiang’s Daoist band performing the Ten Offerings ritual, Jingtai county;
Cao Jixiang’s band seated.
I’ve also written about a more traditional exorcistic ritual in Gansu that recently aroused the ire of the Party leadership; and for instances elsewhere of leftist campaigns opposing traditional customs, see here. For a classic ethnography of a Confucian temple in Gansu, see here. Note also the Maoism tag.
 For Qinghai, note Gerald Roche and Wen Xiangcheng, “Modernist iconoclasm, resilience, and divine power among the Mangghuer of the northeast Tibetan plateau”, Asian ethnology 72.1 (2013), with many further citations.